Moral Judgments as Descriptions of Institutional Facts

In Georg Meggle & Ulla Wessels (eds.), Analyomen 1, Proceedings of the 1st Conference ”Perspectives in Analytical Philosophy. Berlin: de Gruyter. pp. 719-729 (1994)
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Abstract: It deals with the question of what a moral judgment is. On the one hand, a satisfactory theory of moral judgments must take into account the descriptive character of moral judgments and the realistic language of morals. On the other hand, it must also meet the non-descriptive character of moral judgments that consists in the recommending or condemning element and in the fact that normative statements are derived from moral judgments. However, cognitivism and emotivism or “normativism” are contradictory theories: If moral judgments are descriptive, it is not possible to deduce norms from them. But if one can deduce norms from moral judgments, they are not descriptive. As a solution to this problem, the paper suggests that moral judgments represent institutional facts; the corresponding theory is moral institutionalism. A moral institutional fact – “an act X is Y”, Y” means “morally right” or “morally false” – is a hybrid of descriptive and prescriptive elements: It is stating a fact in descriptive language (“is”) and at the same time, it is short for the prescriptive constitutive rule “X is Y according to the moral rules of the language community C”. Institutional facts contain normative presuppositions without letting them appear in their grammatical form. Institutional facts are now (in relation to the language community C) objective and intersubjective and they can be generalized (cognitive aspect), although they cannot be reduced to brute physical or psychological facts, and it is also possible to deduce norms from them because they are built into them. The meta-ethical concept of moral institutionalism, which is evolved further in the paper, preserves the best intentions of emotivism and cognitivism without leading to contradiction. As a by-product, the article shows exactly the error in J. R. Searle’s alleged counterexample against the so-called naturalistic fallacy from “is” to “ought”. This lies in the normative “are” of the analytic premise or definition in “2a. All promises are [that is ought to be] acts of placing oneself under (undertaking) an obligation to do the thing promised”. In “Key concepts in philosophy”, Sankt Augustin 2015, institutionalism is explained further (p.184-191) and confined to what Hegel has called “Sittlichkeit” that is customary morality in in distinction to the “morality” of my personal consciousness (p.212-213):

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Rafael Ferber
University of Zürich


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